As a cooking teacher, I get a lot of satisfaction out of demystifying those techniques and recipes that are shrouded in a veil of misunderstanding. My French bread rolls are a perfect example of something that even good cooks expect to get only from a restaurant kitchen or from a fine bakery. In reality, these rolls are not only easy to make at home, but they’re also much richer in flavor and texture than many rolls bought from a bakery.
Most people think that making bread at home is too time-consuming or requires special equipment.
The truth is that you need no special equipment (although a few easy-to-find pieces help), and it takes less than thirty minutes to make the dough. Shaping the rolls is quick, too, especially once you get the hang of it. Even though the dough takes several hours to rise, your actual hands-on time is only about an hour, leaving you free to do other things. After the first full rise, the dough can be punched down, covered, and refrigerated for up to two days until you’re ready to shape and bake the rolls. And if you don’t need a dozen rolls all at once, you can still bake the full batch and either reheat the remaining rolls the next night or freeze them for up to two weeks.
Get started by gathering your equipment
You can get good results with the standard baking equipment you probably already have, but for the most authentic look and feel to these rolls, you might consider buying a few new pieces of inexpensive equipment. The crispest crusts come from baking on either a large pizza stone or a set of quarry tiles (unglazed terra cotta clay squares). I prefer quarry tiles since their darker color retains more heat, which helps to produce rolls with a really deep brown color. If you have neither of these, you can still get good results with extra-dark, shallow baking sheets. A wooden or metal baker’s peel is helpful for transferring the risen rolls to the hot tiles or stone, and a short-handled broom makes it easy to sweep any leftover cornmeal off the tiles after baking.
Regardless of your baking surface, you’ll need a selection of small tools; see the list below. You may also use a heavy-duty mixer fitted with a dough hook to do the initial mixing, although I prefer to mix by hand.
Mixing bowls: two large, one medium, one small
Bench knife (hand-held metal pastry scraper) or plastic bowl scraper
Dishtowels, several clean, non-terry types
Two baking sheets or trays for rising the rolls
Kitchen parchment (if baking the rolls on baking sheets)
Sharp utility knife